The Pipi Beds
WORDS | Briar Pomona (she/her) ILLUSTRATION | Yi Jong (she/they)
Nanny and Papa lived opposite Te Rehu, our marae in the inland village of Nūhaka. The township sits in between Wairoa and Gisborne and is settled by the iwi of Rakaipaaka to which we belong. Rakaipaaka is the eldest male-born mokopuna of Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine. Nanny and Papa's house sat at the end of a long gravel driveway where the mail would often be thrown into the bushes at the top. Papa would ride on his quad bike up the hill to fetch the bundled paper - dogs or mokopuna in tow on the back of the bike. Nanny would boost up the hill on her early morning walks using cans of baked beans as DIY hand-held weights.
Nanny’s name is Rose and she grew them along the fence line surrounding their property. Mandarin trees were just tall enough that mokopuna could reach low hanging fruit and enjoy the juices on the swing that Papa built on the old willow tree nearby. Nanny’s washing line was longer than the beachline of Mahia. A revolving door of visitors ensured that the line always had a fresh load of tea towels flapping delicately in the Eastern breeze. We would only harvest our pipi in summer.
Like Nanny’s mandarins, the heat seemed to sweeten the shellfish. Pipi, or Paphies australis, are small triangular shellfish of white or yellow colouring that can be found along the coastlines of Aotearoa. In particular, they tend to thrive in estuaries or sandbanks with little wave movement. They burrow themselves a few centimetres into the sand near the shoreline - making them perfect for kaumātua and mokopuna to retrieve together. It’s a great sight to see a gaggle of kuia with trousers rolled up to their shins in knee deep water, plucking their pipi. From Nanny and Papa’s house in Nūhaka, it is about a 10 minute drive to the pipi beds in Mahia. These pipi beds have been around forever and were the place my own kaumātua would come to swim and eat. Our pipi beds kind of look like a holiday brochure cove - without any caves. Picture pōhutukawa trees, golden sand and gloriously clear water. The spot is also quite popular for setting out flounder nets. There are a few houses up from the beds, but hardly any of those are owned by whānau Māori. I now realise why my Papa would look out from the beds at these whare on the hill and scoff at their obnoxiously clean trucks and ridiculously huge boats.
On our way to the pipi beds, Papa would remind my brother and me to look for the signs. He would chug along in their green Subaru with its tino rangatiratanga-inspired licence plate, waving out to any whanaunga that may have passed us by. When Papa would tell us to look for the signs, he meant if the old tractor wheel that has been stuck forever in a distant sandbank was showing. If it was possible to see the ridged tread of the wheel, the tide was out and if not, it was in. We would pick when the tide was out. Normally we’d go when it was baking hot so that us city kids could go for a swim and catch an Eastern suntan.
There's something about little Māori kids swimming in the same waters as their ancestors which is truly taonga tuku iho (passed down treasure). While my brothers flounced about in the water, disturbing all the flounder nets cast by the Pākehā who lived in the multi-million dollar baches on the hill, I would be like a pāua stuck to my Nanny’s side. I loved twisting my ankles in the Mahia sand and hearing her giggle at the beauty of our haul. By the time we were finished, our buckets would be full, but not full enough to force the boys to carry them back to the car. Pipi can be eaten raw, but my whānau and I prefer ours steamed and served on buttered white bread. Once a jug is boiled we would pretty much just pour the hot water over the shells and wait for them to open. Then it was a matter of shelling and eating as you went.
Sometimes the natural juices, heated by the water, would look like salty teardrops on Nanny’s red tablecloth. We would get a growling for being messy, but with pipi, it’s awfully hard to refrain. After our feed, our side plates would have pipi shells stacked like Jenga blocks as Nanny would throw what was left back into the bucket we had used earlier at the beds. We would then take the shells out onto that long driveway and scatter them as we pleased. This again was the role of the mokopuna to mosaic the driveway. In time, these shells would break down into dust under the weight of cars, tractors, horses, cows, sheep and jandals. Through the eyes of my mokopuna self, I lavish in these memories of days spent with my grandparents.
I wish I could stay in the routine of resting, swimming and eating for eternity. I want to ensure my own mokopuna have the same opportunity when their time comes. As the non-Māori baches on the hill grow and holidaymakers trash our village every Christmas and New Years, the future of our pipi beds is uncertain, but not doomed. There is hope in our collective futures and that has been kept alive by Māori and tangata tiriti throughout Aotearoa. These small sweet shellfish are a part of our whakapapa and we must protect them for future generations.